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Penumbra: The Premier Stage for African American Drama

Macelle Mahala
Foreword by Lou Bellamy
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Penumbra Theatre Company was founded in 1976 by Lou Bellamy as a venue for African American voices within the Twin Cities theatre scene and has stood for more than thirty-five years at the intersection of art, culture, politics, and local community engagement. It has helped launch the careers of many internationally respected theatre artists and has been repeatedly recognized for its artistic excellence as the nation's foremost African American theatre. Penumbra is the first-ever history of this barrier-breaking institution. Based on extensive interviews with actors, directors, playwrights, producers, funders, and critics, Macelle Mahala's book offers a multifaceted view of the theatre and its evolution. Penumbra follows the company's emergence from the influential Black Arts and settlement house movements; the pivotal role Penumbra played in the development of August Wilson's career and, in turn, how Wilson became an avid supporter and advocate throughout his life; the annual production of Black Nativity as a community-building performance; and the difficult economics of African American theatre production and how Penumbra has faced these challenges for nearly four decades. Penumbra is a testament to how a theatre can respond to and thrive within changing political and cultural realities while contributing on a national scale to the African American presence on the American stage. It is a celebration of theatre as a means of social and cultural involvement-both local and national-and ultimately, of Penumbra's continuing legacy of theatre that is vibrant, diverse, and vital.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8827-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    Lou Bellamy

    This book is the first comprehensive study of Penumbra Theatre Company, the largest and generally considered most influential African American theatre company in the United States. Macelle Mahala’s familiarity with the theatre and its programming as an August Wilson Fellow at the University of Minnesota allowed her to access archives, conduct individual interviews, and witness productions: she brings those experiences to bear effectively in this book. She not only discusses programming and productions, but she also places the theatre’s history in the context of African American cultural expression, community building and definition, and community responsibility.

    Penumbra is a professional theatre...

    (pp. xi-xvi)

    My earliest memory of visiting Penumbra Theatre Company was as part of a high school field trip I took when I was a student at the Perpich Center for Arts Education. I remember the school bus driving through the historically black Selby-Dale neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota, and dropping us off at the main entrance of the Martin Luther King Jr./Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. As my class entered the building, we filed past portraits of civil rights activists, a child care center, and meeting rooms used by community organizers. We made our way down a narrow hallway to the...

    (pp. 1-20)

    Penumbra Theatre Company was founded in 1976. It has operated continuously since that moment and is one of the few theatre companies created during the Black Arts movement that still exists today. Because Penumbra is housed inside a community center, its history is also intimately linked to the legacy of the Settlement House movement. In the late 1960s and 1970s these two movements intersected when many African American community centers that had been former settlement houses founded theatres in response to increased community interest in culturally specific dramatic literature. In A History of African American Theatre, Errol G. Hill and...

    (pp. 21-42)

    Over the course of its first decade, Penumbra Theatre Company was able to cultivate a cohesive ensemble and develop a signature performance style. During this time, Penumbra expanded its programming by adding the production of African American musicals to its repertoire and beginning a formal new play development program. The theatre also became a union company and laid the groundwork for the establishment of its own autonomous 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizational status. Through these initiatives, the company was able to build a reputation for artistic excellence and further professionalize its operations and administration.

    The acting company during the 1980s included many...

    (pp. 43-58)

    When Black Nativity premiered in New York City in 1961, its title was provocative. The use of the term black was still considered a contentious and political act. New York Times columnist Sam Zolotow suggested the title was “in bad taste,” and the lead actress quit the production, citing religious differences, after producers discarded the title Wasn’t It a Mighty Day in favor of Black Nativity.¹ Traditionally performed as a gospel musical, Langston Hughes’s song play exists at the intersection of religion, theatre, and politics. The production of Black Nativity creates an African American cultural space in a holiday season...

    (pp. 59-80)

    The intersection of August Wilson’s career with the history of Penumbra Theatre Company is still relatively underappreciated and underanalyzed. Wilson’s association with Penumbra over many decades resulted in several significant contributions to African American theatre. Penumbra helped Wilson theorize the social import of his work and hone his artistic craft, facilitating Wilson’s transition from poet to playwright. Wilson, in turn, helped to develop Penumbra’s stature as a nationally recognized cultural institution. His work also provided numerous opportunities for many Penumbra company members to build their careers both at Penumbra and at other theatres across the nation. Finally, Wilson’s advocacy for...

    (pp. 81-116)

    Because of its historical ties to both the Black Arts movement and the work of August Wilson (much of which is centered around ensembles of African American men), Penumbra Theatre Company is not usually associated with feminist performance practices. Echoing the feminist critiques of the Black Power movement,¹ both company members and audiences have criticized Penumbra, particularly in its early days, for being male-dominated and heteronormative. Given these criticisms, Sarah Bellamy asked several of the original female company members in her oral history initiative about their experience as women artists in the early years of the theatre.

    Faye M. Price...

    (pp. 117-142)

    Penumbra Theatre Company illuminates the human condition from the prism of African American experiences.¹ This does not mean, however, that the theatre fails to participate in cross-cultural or global conversations. In the late 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century, Penumbra produced several plays that explored the increasing interdependence of people from various cultural backgrounds, races, and nationalities. As a culturally specific theatre, the intercultural work that Penumbra has produced is grounded in the specific cultural backgrounds and histories of the artists with whom the theatre has worked. These collaborations show how an African American theatre company can contribute...

    (pp. 143-162)

    In recent years Penumbra Theatre Company has faced a series of financial challenges while simultaneously preparing for the eventual retirement of founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy. Consequently, the theatre has taken steps to document its own history and prepare for an uncertain future. In 2006, Penumbra donated its archives to the University of Minnesota’s Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African American Literature. A ceremony commemorating the university’s acquisition of the archive was held in May 2007. A press release for the event quotes Bellamy as saying:

    It is crucial to impart the knowledge we have gained on building community...

    (pp. 163-172)
    (pp. 173-174)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 175-190)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 191-204)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 205-208)
  17. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)